Nazareth, Neuroplasticity, and the Kingdom of God

Posted on by Curt Thompson

Okay. I get it. One could see pretty easily how Nazareth figures with the words “kingdom of God.” But one wouldn’t blame you for wondering what Nazareth or the kingdom of God have to do with neuroplasticity. But after spending only a few days here, I think I am beginning to connect the dots.

A few years ago in the present day city of Nazareth some people discovered archeological evidence of what has turned out to be dwelling places for people living at the time Jesus did. From these discoveries (and there’s a captivating back story of reconciliation where all that began) came the development of The Nazareth Village, a small site you can visit that, with the assistance of real artifacts as well as replicas, reconstructs the likely setting in which Jesus lived and that formed the basis for many of the stories of his parables. It is a site that now annually draws over 60,000 people from all over the world and has been transforming people’s faith as it provides for them an embodied experience of how real life might have been in the first century.

One replication from the Village stood out to me in particular. The curators of the site have constructed a first-century home. And it takes all of about 30 seconds to see the whole thing. The largest room can snugly fit perhaps 25 people at best, if everyone is standing close to each other without moving, and holds his breath. Standing in that room, directly above you can see the reeds and thatch that make up the roof. With this, it’s not hard now to imagine four guys peeling back the roof to let down their invalid friend on a mat to see Jesus because they couldn’t get through the crowd, as Mark’s (2) and Luke’s (5) Gospel’s attest.

The room in which I was standing was so small. Even if, as the gospel of Mark tells us, the room was packed, forcing the sick man’s friends to remove the roofing to get their friend to Jesus, it simply couldn’t have contained that many people. The room just wasn’t that large. And that’s when the thought struck me.

How did it happen that something that would eventually turn the world upside down begin with so few interested parties? Sure, there was that whole incident of Jesus feeding 5,000, but, as Leslie Newbigin reminds us, over the course of Jesus’ ministry his words proved to be as much of a winnowing force as anything else, leading in the end not to church growth, but rather to its opposite. How do you build a kingdom from 12 men? From 25 people in a room? From 5 loaves and 2 fishes?

It has come more and more to my attention that when I am in distress, when my sympathetic drive system and amygdala light up, and cortisol is pouring over my hippocampus, making it hard for me to concentrate while I practice worrying, I want my problem solved swiftly and I wouldn’t mind if it were in grand style. When it comes to trouble in my world or the world at large, I want God to address it at once and undeniably. I want something that would be worthy of the front page of the Washington Post. I want something noteworthy. But for Jesus, so frequently real change showed up not so much in a broadcast to thousands that swept old dried religious wood and the Romans irresistibly out to spiritual sea, never to return. It happened more often in the lives of individuals who—and not until the resurrection—would have to practice believing this new good news of which Jesus spoke, over and over in small moments that would go unnoticed by the world at large. And it turns out that this is exactly what we have to do if we want our minds to be renewed and the world to be redeemed in a sustainable way.

The neuroplastic changes that are the embodied elements of our renewed minds, as it turns out, are more likely to become permanent if we are willing to practice small acts repeatedly and faithfully. This is not to imply that God does not act in large moments. Feeding five thousand-plus mouths was a really big deal. And to be healed of your leprosy or blindness no less so if you’re the one so infirmed.

But as in the biblical narrative itself, most of life is made up not so much of miraculous events worthy of cable news. Hence, practicing prayer. Practicing fasting. Practicing gratitude. Practicing restraint. All in small moments, over and over again. But this is not easy for me. It takes too much time, and in the process reminds me of how far I have not yet come, shame being what it is and doing what it does. Yes, there was Pentecost and the days that followed. But that day—and others like it in the biblical narrative are relatively rare. God seems to be quite content for us to focus our attention on the present, very small moment, and do what he would have us do in the only time we ever have, and in so doing release the big picture to him.

There is nothing like being in Nazareth, if even only for a week, that gives one an appreciation of the complexity and depth of the wounds, pain, and reactivation of shame that so many from so many cultures not only have but continue to endure. The sadness can be so great that it makes one want to scream to God to “Do something, for the love of your name—and do it NOW!!” It would appear that no amount of statecraft apart from the transformation of hearts will substantially change the brokenness here. The situation is such that it feels as if only a monolithic act on God’s part of epic proportion will bring the healing and regeneration that this region so desperately needs.

I don’t care how long real neuroplastic change takes. I so want God to overrule the way he has made our brains to work. But in the end, it would appear that renewal, even in the most desperate places, most powerfully happens one relationship at a time that eventually can emerge into many. But that takes time and faithful commitment to the small moments of which we have been speaking. One conversation, one room of 25 people at a time.

And it just so happens that when we are willing to keep our attention in the present moment, living in Jesus’ presence, allowing space for God to do what only he can, real changes happen while we practice not being anxious about the big picture. And in so doing, when we step back, we begin to see the kingdom emerging, and we do so because we are no longer blinded by the anxiety of our fear of our shame that drives so much evil before it.

Out of very small rooms in a town called Nazareth, the world was forever changed by a group of people who were following someone who takes our two fish and five loaves doing more with them than we could imagine, all the while drawing our attention more to himself and away from our anxiety, as we watch him heal, renew and liberate us to join him in his work of new creation.

And so today, especially where your life feels overwhelmed and terrifying, I invite you to attune to Jesus as you are with him and he with you in the present moment, being aware that he is quite interested in doing more in that small room of time than your mind would ever predict, by giving him your full attention, renewing your mind and changing your brain along the way.

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